Excerpted from the Introduction
We all ‘know’ Jules Verne – or at least, we think we do. Anyone who has ever thrilled to the exploits of a round-the-world yachtsman, or a jungle explorer, or an astronaut; anyone who has been transfixed by a mountaineer, by a deep-sea diver, by a Jacques Cousteau or a David Attenborough, in some sense‘knows’ Verne, for without him it is difficult to imagine that we would be quite as alive to the excitement of exploration, adventure and discovery, that we would get quite the same fix from the new. The novels presented here, Journey to the Centre of the Earth
, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
and Round the World in Eighty Days
are three key texts from the pivotal phase of his career: beginning with his first major success, Five Weeks
in a Balloon
(1863), and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras
(1864), the first of the Extraordinary Journeys
, the defining series of his work; and ending with the outstanding triumph of Round the World in Eighty Days
and the consecration of the Extraordinary Journeys
by the French Academy in 1872. In the meantime Verne had acquired the Legion of Honour, and a fishing-boat – the first of three ever more pretentious vessels on which he would write and sail to destinations as various as Gravesend and the Mediterranean. In 1867 the first English translation of his fiction had appeared – From the Earth to the Moon
, in the New York Weekly Magazine
. From1873 he would go global, publishing a run of outstandingly popular novels – including The Mysterious Island, Michel Strogoff, The Steam House, Robur the Conqueror, Propellor Island, An Antarctic Mystery
and Master of the World
(the last before his death in 1905) – and multiple stage adaptations of his work. Verne is, according to UNESCO, still one of the world’s most translated writers (behind Walt Disney Productions and Agatha Christie, but ahead of Shakespeare and Enid Blyton). The present renderings, first published in 1876 and 1879, can give some impression of how Verne’s earliest English readers
Two things found Verne’s career: trade and travel. Born in 1828, of a lawyer father and a minor-noble mother, into a family of ship-owners and merchants in the busy maritime city of Nantes, Verne himself was sent to Paris to study law. But, like many another young man of the period, and, spurred on by another repentant lawyer, Alexandre Dumas, he turned to the theatre in his twenties, writing a number of moderately successful – if insufficiently lucrative – plays, an operetta, and several stories. In 1857 he would marry and begin a seven-year (if unsuccessful) career as a stockbroker, and, between 1859 and 1861, make his first major journeys abroad (to England and Scotland, then Norway and Denmark, followed by major trips to Liverpool and the States in 1867, to Algiers in ’78, to Scotland again in ’79, to Copenhagen in ’81, to Rome in ’84). But it was his 1862 meeting with Pierre-Jules Hetzel which really transformed his fortunes. Hetzel, the Republican publisher of some of the major writers of his age, among them Balzac, Hugo and George Sand, would follow the first success of Five Weeks in a Balloon with the myriad fictions of the Extraordinary Journeys
(fifty-four novels, in eighty-two volumes, plus some twenty-five stories) over more than forty years. Of nineteenth-century literary enterprises, only Balzac’s ninety-six-work Human Comedy
(another Hetzel publication) can rival it; Zola’s twenty Rougon-Macquart
novels (1871–93) seem modest alongside.
Hetzel was central in determining what (and how) Verne wrote; his left-leaning, improving, pedagogic influence is ubiquitous. But it would be absurd to reduce Verne to Hetzel: there are also other dialogues, of imagination and reality, mobility or displacement and stasis, which probably had their origins in Nantes. Verne, like another Breton (and relation by marriage), Chateaubriand, grew up with the sea in his blood. Aged eleven, he allegedly attempted to run away to sea to India, before being caught and promising henceforth to travel only in his dreams. The tension between the armchair and adventure, between security and possibility, lies at the heart of Verne, as of his age – an age of scientific, technical, industrial, colonial expansion, but also questioning and reverie. The two threads are evident from his first stories, written in the 1850s, A Drama in the Air, A Winter amid the Ice
and Master Zacharias
. They nod to earlier speculative adventure writing (such as de Bergerac’s 1657 Journey to the Moon
), but also to the contemporary vogue for Hoffmann and Germanic fantasy. They typically feature an eccentric technical genius, like previous tales of frenzied artisans and artists – Hoffmann’s Master Martin the Cooper
and The Trill
, Balzac’s Master Cornelius
(1831) – but also like Verne’s imminent
novels. France/Germany, imagination/reality: this dual inheritance is significant, revealing something fundamental both to Verne and to what would be called, somewhat inaptly, his science fiction: a whimsy appealing to something prospective, curious, enquiring, in Verne’s (and many another contemporary reader’s) mind, tempered by a supposedly Teutonic literalism, a countervailing strain of practicality, of artisan craft and technical potential, of excitement at what human ingenuity could achieve.
The twin threads of fancy and practicality are embodied in the two significant works he wrote aged twenty-five, Five Weeks in a Balloon
and Paris in the Twentieth Century
. Five Weeks in a Balloon
bears the trademarks of what Timothy Unwin has more appropriately dubbed Verne’s ‘science-in-fiction’. It takes a known technical reality, balloon travel (then being demonstrated by Verne’s friend, the great photographer Nadar), and makes it extraordinary, placing it in the realm of fantasy, in a journey preternaturally impossible, because headed west against insuperable winds. Yet because we begin with the familiar, we believe. Taking the familiar and pushing it is a recurrent ploy of Verne’s – firing the gentlemen of the Gun Club from a cannon, led by Nadar anagrammatically present as Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon
(1865); imagining a steam-driven elephant (The Steam House
, 1880), or an electro-mechanically powered island (Propellor Island
, 1895). Verne segues from the real to the unbelievable, to the strange but seemingly true. This is the opposite of the uncanny: the strange is made familiar, rather than the familiar, strange. Paris in the Twentieth Century,
conversely, his next offering to Hetzel after Five Weeks in a Balloon,
reads perhaps as the uncanny, Verne’s imagining of a world we (but in many ways also Verne’s contemporaries) would recognize, with mass-culture, long-distance communication, metros, electric lighting, fax, and cars: technologically advanced but also totalitarian, philistine, materialistic. Such candour would have sunk him; Hetzel, indeed, refused it, its vision being doubtless too dystopically off-message. Verne’s Twentieth Century would not appear until 1994, by which time it was almost historical.Five Weeks in a Balloon
and Paris in the Twentieth Century
thus represent two currents in Verne’s production – optimism, technology, the forward-looking on the one hand, and on the other a recurrent undertow of apprehension about mankind’s ability to handle its own inventions. But to these two currents must be added a third: a new, thing-based world of modernity and alienation, the realm, indeed, of what we now call science fiction, conceived, if not completely realized, in Paris in the Twentieth Century
. Science fiction had been somewhat anticipated by the Goncourt brothers, themselves apostles of a fastidious realism, who had noted, in 1856, after reading Edgar Allan Poe, a new literary world, the signs of the literature of the twentieth century. The scientific miraculous, the fable via AòB; a sickly, lucid literature. No more poetry: imagination by analysis, blow by blow [ . . . ] Something monomaniacal – Things with more role than people; love giving way to deductions and other sources of ideas, phrases, tales and interest; the basis of the novel transported from the heart to the head and from passion to the idea, from drama to its solution.
But when Verne writes on Poe in 1864, he observes something the Goncourts pass over: not technology, but the human elements in Poe’s fictions. Where Ann Radcliffe uses the ‘genre terrible, always explained by natural causes’, and Hoffmann a ‘pure fantastic, which no physical reason can explain’, Poe’s characters are, in contrast, possible, Verne says, and
eminently human, though endowedwith an overexcited, supra-nervous sensibility, exceptional individuals who are galvanized, so to speak, like people breathing air with extra oxygen, whose life were but an active combustion. Though not mad, Poe’s characters are doomed to go mad by abusing their brain as others abuse strong liquour; they push the spirit of reflection and deduction to its limit; they are themost awe-inspiring analysts I know who, beginning from an insignificant fact, reach the absolute truth.
This appraisal contains the template of Verne’s great novels, and of what might be called his human science: a fusing of myth and the real; a new, modern, awestruck apprehension of the man-made and the natural; a dream – yet sometimes nightmare – of the possibilities of mankind, technology and the sublime.
Our first such novel is Journey to the Centre of the Earth (
1864). It begins with the enthusiastic return of the narrator’s uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, to his home on a precisely indicated date, 24 May 1863, with an exciting new discovery. We do not find out what the discovery is until the second chapter, for the first is taken up with an account of Lidenbrock’s eccentricity, and the firm establishment of this protagonist as a mad scientist, a stuttering, Hoffmannesque, imperious egomaniac. The first chapters lead us circuitously to the novel’s core, the journey. That journey is triggered by Lidenbrock’s purchase of a runic manuscript, which he gradually deciphers; an echo, perhaps, of Champollion’s 1822 elucidation of the Rosetta stone, but also a recollection of the more distant fictional past of a sixteenth-century scholar and alchemist, Saknussemm (chapter III), who interpreted the manuscript and made the journey to the centre of the earth, entering via an Icelandic volcano. Saknussemm, decoded by Lidenbrock, places the reader on the familiar if unsettling ground of the Faustian pact characterized by Goethe’s drama (translated by Nerval in 1827), but also of alchemy and the quest for the absolute explored in Balzac’s eponymous novel of 1834, itself about a fictional sixteenthcentury Flemish alchemist, Balthasar Clae¨s. But Lidenbrock, unlike Clae¨s, is ultimately successful, and both pedagogic and edifying: Lidenbrock’s reading of the runes (chapter II) is but the first of many episodes in which the learned professor will lecture and educate his nephew, and the reader, about a succession of subjects, from cryptograms to geology, to zoology, and the history of the earth, freighting his explanations with footnotes (though also assuming a wide vocabulary), his seriousness redeemed only by the fact that he is German, stutters, and is thus supposedly a figure of fun. He is an early example of a role which would become fundamental to the formation of nineteenth-century French identity: the teacher.
It is that target of Second-Empire, and later Third-Republic, pedagogy, the citizen, who is at the heart of Journey to the Centre of the Earth
. If Lidenbrock is mocked, at the outset, because of his egotistically subjective lectures (chapter I), such selfobsessed and disorganized idiosyncrasy is but the obverse of the
infinitely more ordered education which Axel, and the reader, will receive. The whole odyssey, which actually never reaches the earth’s centre, combines recurrently Poesque claustrophobia with a remarkable amount of subterranean actual and mental headroom, and develops from that point of subjectivity which is the reader – whether the savant
represented in many of Verne’s novels, and here by Professor Lidenbrock – or the real
live recipients of the fiction, you and I. It is in the reader’s imagination that the journey ultimately occurs. This geo-historical itinerary is as much a journey around books (indeed, chapter XXXVIII compares dinosaur fossils to a library devised for Lidenbrock’s personal satisfaction) – not just Hoffmann and his French emulators in the jocular, indulgent picture of the German scientist cum artisan-artist, but also Poe, the major inspiration for the journey’s confinements and inertia, in particular via the below-decks scenes from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
(1838), to which Verne would produce a sequel, An Antarctic Mystery,
It is digression, however, which constitutes the novel’s fundamental essence. Its linear drives towards the centre, towards knowledge, are counterpointed by redeeming divagations, relieving what might otherwise be a relentless (and potentially tedious) stress on progress by an enlivening, at times almost vaudevillian humour and caprice. Many dangers, obstacles actual and potential, are faced and overcome: the storm on the Valkyia (chapter IX); the ascent of Mount Sna¨ffell (chapter XV); the descent into the crater (chapter XVII); exhaustion of the explorers’ water supplies (chapter XIX). This uncertain itinerary of advances and set-backs, breakthroughs, mistakes and dead-ends, mimics the very business of discovery and disappointment: science, as Lidenbrock remarks, is made of mistakes which are worth making (chapter XXXI); the journey is very far from being as straightforward as a notional descent along the earth’s plain radius might lead us to expect. The expedition which begins with an unremarkable railway journey from Kiel, and heads via Copenhagen and Iceland to end in the Mediterranean, via a spectacularly life-threatening ejection from a volcano (chapter XLIV) is measured by misadventure.
Yet over-spanning all is the novel’s generic fundamental, romance. Mentioned in the exposition but tangential for most of its length is Lidenbrock’s god-daughter, Gra¨uben, whom thenarrator loves and will eventually marry. For most of the time, she is scandalously absent (as women generally are in Verne): present only, like Lidenbrock’s servant Martha, as the domestic and/or spouse she ultimately becomes. Just as the narrative takes us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, so it also leads us via incredible adventures back to the familiar, and marriage, at its end. The ploy by which the unbelievable is made plausible is the report of Lidenbrock’s explorations in ‘the leading journals’ (chapter XLVI): the press, ostensibly the ultimate benchmark of veracity, provides, with the novel’s opening date, the framing grains of truth. Yet the leitmotif of madness running throughout the novel is ultimately overturned: Lidenbrock’s compass, which has led them astray, is revealed to have done so not because it has gone ‘mad’, but because it was remagnetized in their final ejection from the earth. It is an elegant reversal: north is south, and south is north; the rational is insane, and, by implication, the fictional real. The scientist’s ‘madness’ is finally validated by the rational; the extraordinary journey by its supposed corroboration in the press; in a vertiginous self-mirroring in the last chapter, the novel even circulates under its own title, within its own fictional world. Writing acts to validate the ‘real’, but also teases about its very nature, status and existence.
Copyright © 2013 by Tim Farrant. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.